The Lehigh-Northampton Airport Authority sees a future for its municipal airport in Northampton County, if the board is willing to make a more than $2 million investment in the property.
The authority’s executive committee on Wednesday considered a menu of options for Braden Airpark along Sullivan Trail in Forks Township. Authority staff narrowed the list to one recommendation they believe offers the best short-term solution for the small airport that’s been saddled with an uncertain future.
Michael Dowd, chairman of the airport authority’s board of directors, said Wednesday’s recommendation doesn’t solidify plans for Braden Airpark, but he said the discussion is “light years ahead” of where the authority has been on the airport’s future.
Still needed are presentations to the full authority board and Northampton County Council in the event county officials want to contribute financially to the project, Dowd said. The board will also be looking for public input and suggestions from its general aviation committee, which should have a better sense of the market for a facility like Braden, he said.
Ultimately, Dowd said he’d like to see the board be in a position next year to set a timeline and a starting date for the project, acknowledging that it remains a moving target at this point.
Planning consultant Frank Kulka said the object of the staff review in conjunction with engineers from The C&S Companies was to look at long-term sustainability for Braden Airpark. A major component of that discussion was the runway.
The existing 1,956-foot runway meets the needs of all the aircraft currently using Braden, according to Kulka. Extending it to 2,700 feet would accommodate about 95 percent of the general aviation fleet considered small aircraft by the Federal Aviation Administration, he said.
But that comes with a hefty price tag.
Extending the runway to 2,265 feet would cost more than $3 million, require another 10 acres and need a combined 500 landings and take-offs each year to justify the extension and receive approval from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, according to Kulka.
Extending the runway to 2,700 feet would require another $2.65 million and 4 more acres, he said, adding that the general aviation market is just not a growing trend right now.
“It’s not that you can’t build it,” Kulka said, noting that the authority has Lehigh Valley International and Queen City as alternatives. “It just a little premature for us.”
With runway extensions looking to be much longer-term alternatives, Kulka laid out a short-term proposal that can be turned around quickly. The estimated $2.73 million project would include at least two new hangars, a new 1,800-square-foot terminal, rehabilitating the runway and installing security fencing around the airport.
A key component to the project is leasing a 6-acre property north of the airport, leasing a 7-acre property south of the airport and selling or leasing 31 acres situated west of the runway. The two parcels to be leased sit along Sullivan Trail and any development on the three properties may require a zoning change from the township. Authority Executive Director Charles Everett Jr. said the leases are necessary to make the capital investments in the airport. But he said he doesn’t envision having difficulty finding suitors as the authority routinely fields unsolicited inquiries about the properties.
Leasing the land, he noted, necessitates the security fencing around the airport.
The proposal would net the authority about $3.5 million over a 10-year period.
Kulka highlighted one of the other six options for Braden, but it included far higher up-front costs for the authority and would take considerably longer to develop. The roughly $9 million proposal would essentially shift the entire airport to the west, opening up a large single property along Sullivan Trail for development.
The other outcomes along with the two options recommended by staff come down to maintaining the status quo and watching Braden lose about $145,000 annually or sell the property and pocket $7 million to further develop Lehigh Valley International, Kulka said. Braden would fetch about $14 million based on appraisals, but grant agreements with the PennDOT means the state would receive half the sales price.
The authority in recent months has gotten out from beneath a years-old court decision that hamstrung its budget and prompted a property sale to pay the multi-million dollar settlement. The Braden Airpark proposal recommended by staff would settle a second long-standing issue, allowing the authority to focus on long-term development initiatives, Kulka said.
And it would leave all three airports turning a profit, he said.
The board members attending Wednesday’s committee meeting were generally receptive to the ideas presented and praised the staff for its work. But board member Dean Browning said he was “dissatisfied” with the process that seemed to be handled entirely by the executive committee, noting he wanted to see the details hammered out before going to the committee.
And he feared Braden Airpark was being examined in a vacuum. Browning said he wants input, for instance, on how the project fits into the authority as a whole, whether there’s available cash flow for the project and whether the project affects Queen City.
During his presentation, Kulka noted that the pilot population utilizing Braden is a shrinking one. Board member Chuck Diacont, himself a pilot, disputed that notion and said he thinks there are opportunities to grow the customer base.
He questioned whether it made sense for the authority to hire a general aviation specialist to “beat the bushes” and market not only Braden but Queen City to pilots.